Would 'Star Wars' Have Existed Without This Experimental 1952 Short Film?
(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired or help us better understand George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: the 1952 film Neighbours.)
It’s been said that Pablo Picasso called 1952’s Neighbours the greatest film ever made. Though I wouldn’t bestow that much honor to it, it is definitely a film you need to see and holds a special place in film history and the inspiration of Star Wars. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Norman McLaren, it won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject. This highly political film is disguised as a loosely animated parable for the dangers of war and possession. It was shot in a style called pixilation, that was novel at the time though it seems common enough these days, where live actors appear to be animated.
It’s only eight minutes long and I’d suggest watching it before we dive deeper:
The film follows two neighbors who live in relative peace when a flower sprouts up in the space between their property. A fight over possession of the flower ensues, punches are thrown, swords are crossed, fences are erected, and families are murdered. Eventually, each man turns into a haunted shell of himself until the neighbors die and the film ends by chiding to instead love our neighbors. The animation techniques pushed the boundary of what people thought of as film at the time and it was intensely political. Watching the parallel line of the fence move back and forth over a piece of land in the midst of the Korean war was provocative to audiences of the time and the film found a resurgence during the Vietnam War as it absurdly portrayed the absurdities and twisting nature of war.
But how did George Lucas find inspiration here?
Thematic Influence on Lucas
In an interview with Wired Magazine at the release of Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas pointed to this film as one that was highly influential to him from his days exploring experimental films in his studies. Bringing it up as Revenge of the Sith came out, there are many parallels we can draw, but the one I was struck most by was the transformation of the men during their brawl. It evokes the same hideous transformation in Darth Sidious when Mace Windu reflects the Force lightning back into his face. Unleashing that evil makes us appear as monsters.
It’s not only this moment, but the entire film is thematically similar to the third prequel film: people who once got along fight each other to the death trying over the preservation of a thing they end up destroying. As Lucas was exploring his own anti-war feelings on film, Neighbours was never far from his mind.
It’s particularly horrifying, especially for a film from the ‘50s, to see these men each murder the wives and children of their opponents and it’s equally shocking when Anakin chokes his own wife in Revenge of the Sith. When one is caught in a way of thinking that tells you that war and murder are acceptable and justified means to an end, any horrific act seems permissible. Like, say, killing younglings.
This theme is essentially what Revenge of the Sith is all about, asking us to hold that mirror to ourselves. What evil will we do when we’re wrapped up in a cause we believe is just?
The end of Neighbors, chiding us to love each other, is as relevant as Yoda’s admonition of Anakin to learn to let go the things he fears to lose; possession and jealousy are the things that cause this suffering and eschewing those feelings are noble.
Visuals and Pushing the Envelope
There are a number of moments in the film that could be viewed as pre-cursors to the Force and its use in the films as well. The neighbors extend a palm and blast a fence from one side of a yard to another. In fact, the entire sequence over the fence in Neighbours brings to mind the “wizards duel” between Yoda and Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. When this contest of the Force fails in both films, the combatants resort to a sword fight. In Neighbors, though, the two men pluck fence pickets from the ground and duel in a fantastical nature. In Star Wars, naturally, we have lightsabers.
More than anything, the film unlocked a view in Lucas about what was possible to pull off on celluloid. Neighbours shows people defying the laws of physics, it was impressionistic in ways that suggested the story without establishing it in a sense of realism. We understand that the houses behind the neighbors are cardboard cutouts, but we believe that these are their houses and their yards. Lucas was adept at being able to make suggestions of ideas, both in his writing and on the screen, without having to show them entirely. In his early days of filmmaking, this film would have served as a constant reminder to stop thinking about films in a classic way and push the envelope.
National Film Board of Canada
This isn’t the only Canadian short film that inspired Star Wars. In fact, I wrote about how 21-87, another film from the Canadian Film Board, was a huge inspiration and you can read more about that here. But the National Film Board of Canada had been an incubator in film and filmed expression since its founding in 1939. It’s produced over 13,000 films and those films have won thousands and thousands of awards. It makes one wonder why we don’t have a similar agency here in the United States to incubate talent and push the envelope without having to worry about making money back. Art for art’s sake is worth a society paying for.
Would the world have Star Wars if not for the productions that came out of the National Film Board of Canada? There’s every chance that answer is no.
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